When you watch the Olympics, the indoor cycling events are raced on a curved, oval, wooden track called a velodrome (in fact our office sponsors cyclist Sarah Hammer in this years Olympics in London, England. Get to know her and cheer her on at www.sarahhammer.com. USA,USA!) The bikes they ride are fixed-wheeled without breaks. That is to say, the rider cannot coast and that the only way to stop is to eventually slow the pedaling of the bike. It is amazing how fast the sprinters can pedal, getting their revolution of the pedal per minutes (termed: cadence) at close to 300 revolutions per minute. Note: most average riders pedal at a cadence of 60 per minute.
Taking a page from this book, they invented the spin bicycle, and with that a funny, sweat inducing activity called spinning. Spinning is the act of using a fixed wheeled, stationary bike typically in a classroom setting. These spinning classes are the aerobic classes of the new millennium. There are spinning classes and even spinning studios almost everywhere once you start searching for them. There are also home versions such as http://www.spinning.com that has many excellent classes in DVD form that are great to follow at home. Besides classroom-type, group spinning classes, they have several DVD’s that are actual tours of road bike rides from Southern California to Boulder Colorado and even Ireland (I don’t recommend the Ireland ride since, in Ireland, bikes ride on the left side of the street and every second it seems like you are going to “ fly on a windshield” with your bike).
Pedals on a spin bike have regular flat sides for regular court type shoes, but the other side is usually set up for actual bike shoes that clip into the pedal. On some there is the old fashioned strap that will cinch over the forefoot. While it is ok to ride on just the flat side, the rider will then only get about half the workout. With the clip in pedals or the strap, the rider is able to also engage the backside muscles of his thigh called the hamstring. Fixing the foot to the pedal allows the rider to pull up with one leg while pushing with the other side. With time, practice and patience the rider improves the manner in which he turns the pedals. The novice rider usually mashes in a vertically downward manner, using only the front muscles of the thigh (quadriceps).
The experienced rider has learned through hours of concentrated practice to truly pedal in circles with the hamstrings attempting to pull up at the same time the quadriceps are pushing not down, but in an efficient circle. The foot remains flat to the ground throughout the whole pedaling, cycling in a path analogous to “scraping gum from front part of the shoe”.
What seems to make the spinning bike such a better experience than the traditional old fashioned stationary bike is the ability to pedal very quickly and to be able to easily stand on the pedals. Standing on the pedals while spinning, rapidly uses a whole new set of muscles, especially the calf muscles (gastroneimus). The first time a novice rider attempts to “dance on the pedals” (as experienced riders sometime call it) they quickly feel the burn in the quadriceps muscles. A great resource for cycling is from a family doctor turned cycling coach in San Diego named Arnie Baker (www.arniebakercycling.com). Last winter we got some middle aged, “usta could” together twice a week and did his indoor H.I.T. program (High Intensity Training) during the holiday season.
The spin classes are a variation of the rate of pedaling, the force of pedaling and changing from seated to standing positions. There are no numbers or levels with a spinning bike, there is only “the knob”. A rider can adjust his “suffering in the saddle” based on small twist of the sometimes hated “knob”. The rider decides the amount of resistance with the knob, as no one in the class could possibly know except the rider. Everyone wants to give an effort but it is easy to overdo it and suffer the ultimate humiliation of a spin class…putting too much resistance on the wheel then not being able to turn the pedal, resulting in the whole front wheel stopping as the other rider’s look in your direction and thinking, “rookie”. The knob can be a rider’s best friend or worse enemy. A heart rate monitor is advisable to help a rider decide how much to turn “the knob”.
Speaking of enemies, the instructors of spin classes are to be feared and rarely trusted. Novice spinning riders are encourage to arrive at class early so as to get a bike in the back where they are less conspicuous and are able to observe and learn from the more experience riders. Novice spinning riders should essentially never listen to the PYT, ie:“pretty, young thing”(God bless Michael Jackson) in the front of the spinning class. She, as most spin instructors seem to be, is in fantastic shape and most days runs several spin classes. She, obviously, does not have a clue what it is like to be a middle age male who, “use’ta could” but now is significantly above their ideal weight. She doesn’t know the pain of having knees that buckle but not our belts on our pants. She has no clue that our backs go out more than we do.
So if a novice rider doesn’t listen to the instructor, then who do they follow? The answer is we follow our own heart rate. Experience riders know that whether riding a spin bike at the gym or a road bike in the Tour de France, all riders must “ride their own ride”. With your trusty heart rate monitor (try www.polarusa.com), just get your heart rate to 120 beats per minute and just survive the first class no matter how much you think everyone is looking at you. Be safe and resist the temptation to try to impress anyone in the class. It turns out that just getting your heart rate over 120 beats per minute will give you a training effect. Don’t worry what others think of you. I always remind myself that you wouldn’t worry what others think of you until you realize how little they think of you. (Yes, I tried to minor in philosophy in college (Go LMU Lions!)).
Now we get to the dreaded cycling clothes. Oh the tight fitting, spandex-laden cycling clothes. For convention, the cycling top and pants are called a “kit”. The spandex stretching clothes are to minimize wind drag when riding outside. There are a serious of pockets in back of the kit top to hold various items such as snack food/jells, cell phone, wallet , etc. However, the most important item for comfort when riding is the goofy cycling shorts that look like the rider pooped their pants. These can save the tenderest of bottoms on a spin bike or a road bike. Biking shorts have a shami-like cushion sewn into the tush part to make the bike seats bearable. They have styles where the spandex bike short is then covered by longer, baggier shorts, especially make for some mountain bikers.
As you improve from simply surviving a spin class to wanting to start to “hammer” a spin class, take a moment to figure your approximate training heart rate limit. This is done by calculating the approximate maximum heart rate, then not riding over a certain percentage of that maximum heart rate (best training heart rate is usually 70% of the maximum heart rate). A rough equation to calculate a maximum heart rate is subtracting the age of the rider from 220(expressed in beats per minute). So if the rider is 50 years old this is calculated as: 220-50 = 170 beats per minute as a maximum heart rate. For exercise this is a rough estimate of maximum heart rate. We say rough estimate because the maximum heart rate does not just depend on a person’s age but also on their fitness level. While it is true that a person’s maximum heart rate does decline with age, the rate of decline depends on the rider’s fitness level. As we get in better shape our heart chambers get larger. This is a natural adaption from a regular exercise program. Since the heart chambers, especially the left ventricle, does not need to beat as fast to get the blood to circulate in our bodies. Somewhat counter intuitively, the fitter a rider is the lower maximum heart rate they can attain. Usually, these fit rider have very low resting heart rates (instead of the usually 70 beats per minute, they are usually under 60 beats per minute). The maximum heart rate, despite maximum effort (read that suffering), many times will be considerably less that that number predicted from the 220-age equation that is on a wall somewhere in just about every exercise gym. On the other end of the fitness spectrum, the less fit rider’s maximum heart rate often can be significantly over the predicted maximum heart rate. Jokingly, they can hit the predicted maximum heart rate simply “running to the refrigerator”. Their heart chambers are usually smaller in volume than the average left ventricle and so they must increase the heart rate to get sufficient blood circulating in the body.